LOS ANGELES – Does Amie Yaniak know the price of a chilli-red Mini Cooper? Oh, no, it appears she does not.
“I don’t know what I’m doing! I have no idea how much that car is worth!” said Yaniak, a music therapist/vocal coach/health and wellness coach/tableside guacamole maker. (Hey, it’s LA)
On this particular morning, standing next to imperturbable host Drew Carey, it matters not one bit, because the relentlessly ebullient Yaniak was plucked to be a contestant on The Price Is Right, America’s most popular and longest-running daytime game show, launched in 1956, relaunched on CBS in 1972 and dedicated to contestants guessing the price of almost everything without ever going a penny over.
The Price Is Right after all, is one of the few game shows in which the audience pitches in suggesting prices – let’s be honest: yelling prices – and competition among contestants evaporates. In the sherbet-on-hallucinogens studio, stalled somewhere in the early 1970s, the audience howls competing prices so emphatically that Yaniak, 41, can’t figure out what price to suggest.
“What? Say, what?”
She is onstage at the Bob Barker Studio, named for the snow-tressed former host of 35 years (who’s now 95), because she dreamed that this would happen, but also because she exhales exclamation marks, the ideal temperament for a “Price” contestant.
Who knew such joy could be derived from guessing the price of a can of Progresso chicken noodle soup? (USD2.69) For more than five million daily viewers, The Price Is Right is their happy hour. The show’s success is anchored on delivering two American dreams simultaneously: face time on national television and scoring gobs of aspirational stuff for doing next to nothing. Whether it’s through episodes (often recorded for evening viewing) or online forums, in line for a taping or at the live touring show, ardent fans relish the fantasy that knowing the price of ordinary goods can deliver wealth and untold splendour.
“We are ingrained in the American culture,” said Rachel Reynolds, the doyenne of the show’s five models, celebrating her 16th year of gesturing toward cars and outdoor furniture sets. “It has gotten so many people through a rough time.”
Contestant Kyland Young, 27, a Los Angeles marketing manager, watches because his grandmother watches.
It’s an heirloom programme, passed down through generations. “Every time you were home from school, it was on,” Young said. “It was on all the time.”
It’s on all the time in plenty of places. Homegrown versions air in 42 countries and territories, including Morocco, Nigeria and Pakistan.
I know a nonprofit director with two master’s degrees who watches it to unwind nightly. He loves the show because it’s predictable in its format (nine contestants, three acts) yet unpredictable in its outcome, because prizes can be massive, the largest payout being USD213,876 during Big Money Week in 2016. (Contestants can accept the cash equivalent of all winnings, but pay taxes no matter what.)
Change is tectonic on The Price Is Right. Asked what’s different since she joined the show, Reynolds pauses. “We used to give away grandfather clocks.” Now, for an audience fluent in the Esperanto of designer flash, the show highlights Louboutins, Jimmy Choos and, during Dream Car Week, a Maserati.
Sure, there are 77 different games, special weeks and fresh models (the latest, former Ravens wide receiver Devin Goda, spends this episode largely shirtless in the freezing theatre). But so many other features are legacy: the theme song, sort of anodyne Herb Albert; the manila price-tag name stickers; the tagline “Come on down!” exhorted by dapper announcer George Gray, the show’s fourth.
“It’s the comfort food of television. It’s mashed potatoes,” director Adam Sandler said. (Not that one, although that Sandler memorably cast Barker in Happy Gilmore.) “No matter your walk of life, you know the price of things.”
Or, in Yaniak’s case, maybe not.
Oh my word, it’s the Wheel!
Right past the craps tables and slots at MGM National Harbour outside Washington, DC, is a stove-size version of the show’s iconic Big Wheel (which weighs close to a tonne and is a doozy to spin) and attracts far more attention than the cocktail waitresses in bodices sliced to their navels.
In 2004, the franchise spawned The Price Is Right Live! a wholly separate, touring road version offering 150 performances a year and, with a separate host, emcee and model, zero chance of meeting Carey.
Know what? Fans don’t care!
The four November performances at National Harbor’s 3,000-seat theatre, with tickets from USD40 to USD167, basically sell out. When they roll out the Plinko board – a grid where contestants drop chips that land on printed dollar amounts that range from zip to holy moly – the audience reacts as though Lady Gaga has taken the stage.
Attendees have a slim chance of winning the lottery to become a contestant, although the VIP package includes meeting emcee Todd Newton and a chance to spin that smaller Wheel. “For a lot of people, that’s like shaking the hand of Elvis,” Newton said.
Kristie and Mark Casey, with friends Teresa and Ryan Malisko, both of suburban Virginia, attend a show to celebrate their anniversaries.
“Anyone can win, and you can win a car. Even if you don’t get picked, you’re participating in the game,” Teresa says. (Spoiler alert: They don’t get picked.)
“It’s so simple, everyone can do it,” Kristie said. “It’s not Jeopardy! And it’s so much better than Wheel of Fortune.”
At the television show, tickets are free, and all 300 audience members get interviewed as potential contestants.
Many line up at dawn, almost six hours before taping at CBS Television City in LA’s Fairfax neighbourhood.
In a covered porchlike area outside the studio with benches (and heat lamps for those frigid 60-degree mornings) are hopefuls from across the nation and several countries, ranging in age from 18 to great-grandparent, including more people of colour than will be seen on other programmes during an entire season.
If Jeopardy projects a studious mien, drawing contestants who aced standardised tests and dress for court appearances, The Price Is Right is its opposite. Contestants are extroverts, denizens of community theatre, folks who appear lit while sober. They’re attired in “Price” Casual – bedazzled T-shirts, jeans, sneakers. Every show is a late-summer barbecue. These people come to play.
The first time CBS brass asked Carey to replace Barker, he said no. His monster sitcom had ended after nine seasons. He was “kind of retired,” pursuing acting lessons, hoping for small movie roles.
CBS asked again. “What’s your favourite thing to do?” an executive inquired. “I really like leaving big tips for people,” he said – USD100 for a bottle of water, more for a pricey meal.
On this show, the suit said, “you get to do that every day by giving away prizes.”
The thought occurred to Carey, “This is a chance to make soccer-team money.” As in buying-a-soccer-team money. His initial salary, Variety reported, was high seven figures. That was 12 years of showcases ago. Carey, 60, is now a minority owner of the Seattle Sounders.
In many ways, Carey is an odd fit. A self-professed loner, he appears bewildered when hugged by contestants, which is all the time. He garnishes conversations with mentions of Freud’s “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,” Jung, his therapist and observations like, “It’s all one mass hallucination we’re having.”
He’s not a suit guy, the tie seems like a vise, and the job requires him to play straight man, when he’s a recovering stand-up comedian. His humour is not always the audience’s humour. At a recent taping, he makes frequent jokes about contestants hallucinating that are largely ignored.
But Carey’s also amiable and loose. He wears his Cleveland street cred on his sleeve, solidifying the show’s allure that any schmo can be a winner.
He’s incredulous to learn that Paul McCartney is a fan. The former Beatle serenaded him at a concert last year, ad-libbing “Come on down!” in the middle of Back in the USSR. (The host bawled.)
Carey likes sharing contestants’ “Cinderella moments,” making them happy. “Where else can you go in America, and be in a big crowd like this, and have a bunch of strangers rooting for another stranger to do well?”
Plus, he believes something bigger is at play. “It’s a Joseph Campbell journey. It’s somebody plucked from obscurity – just working-class people, mostly – and they have to overcome a small obstacle,” Carey said. “Then they overcome a bigger obstacle. Then they have to have a little bit of chance and luck be on their side.”
Also, a swell gig: “My job is to show up in a good mood every day, and explain some games.”
There is one central mystery to The Price Is Right: How are contestants selected?
The man responsible is co-producer Stan Blits, arguably the show’s most important employee.
On staff for four decades, Blits is the musical director (yes, there is one), “car strategist” and, with an associate producer, the interviewer of an estimated 53,000 potential contestants every year.
Many aspirants arrive in eye-catching T-shirts. (‘You Drew Me to You!’, ‘I Bet $1 More’.) Nice touch. Doesn’t matter.
While the show tapes weeks in advance, it performs like live television. There are breaks, but contestants don’t get do-overs. Contestants need to be the life of the party, to bring a level of stage presence that matches or exceeds that of the audience.
Before each taping, outside the studio, Blits lines up a group of 25 would-be contestants at a time, and then interviews each one for a minute or less, while perched in a director’s chair.
“Performing is the worst thing you can do for me,” he said. He asks a few questions, nothing taxing. Where are you from? What’s your favourite game? Plinko, so much Plinko. There are no wrong answers.
OK, this one: “I don’t watch the show.”
For each episode, nine will make it, reflecting a diversity of age, race and gender, but all human Roman candles, able to animate the show. What Blits fears, and “keeps me in knots during the whole taping of the show, the worst thing is to underreact to something spectacular, like the chance to win a car.”
After he finishes with questions, the interview isn’t over. Blits glances back at potential contestants to see if they “can sustain the excitement” when he moves down the line.
He’s looking for someone like Yaniak, the tableside guacamole maker. She catches his attention immediately – and every time he looks back at her, she mimes mashing those avocados.
“Stop? Stop? Stop?” Yaniak asks 300 strangers where she should stop the gauge during the Range Game so that it lands within USD150 of the list price.
“I’m praying and hoping that someone has a car dealership and tells me the price,” Yaniak said. “Here? Now?”
Well, it’s USD23,250 – and she wins that chilli-red Mini Cooper. Plus a 65-inch television and a Blu-ray player, which the show hands out like nachos.
“What? What? What?” she screams, jumping, palms pressed to her face.
But she’s not done. Yaniak advances to the showcase, where two contestants bid on separate prize packages. Hers includes five days in New York, Dior shoes, a necklace, a wallet, a pair of sunglasses, a clutch.
Oh, and another car: A toothpaste-green Ford Fiesta.
Again, Yaniak hasn’t a clue.
“Thirty-seven thousand! No, USD34,000!” the audience yells. She stands onstage squinting, straining, hoping to hear her mother’s suggestion. Finally, she hears her: “Thirty-three thousand!”
Yaniak wins the USD36,513 showcase. Her total haul for a few spirited minutes onstage: USD62,263.14.
“I’ve been going through a rough time. This is such a blessing,” she said later. “Financially, this couldn’t happen at a better time.”
Except her mother has a heart attack. During the taping, although it isn’t clear at the time. After the show, they go straight to the hospital. Surgery is successful.
Which Yaniak views as providence. Nothing deflates her euphoria. “A blessing in disguise, because my mother was supposed to leave the next day. Imagine if it had happened on the plane,” she said.
The Price Is Right, she believes, delivered a gift far greater than USD63,263.14.
“Those people in the audience were really rooting for me. It was like a little family,” she said. “There were a bunch of beautiful souls in that room.” And she’s keeping both cars. – Text and Photos by The Washington Post